Curadmír | The Champion’s Portion

No, it’s not what you think… my, you all have such dirty minds!

Concentrate.

Curadmír comes from the old Irish word curad which means ‘of a hero/ champion/ warrior’, and also from the word mir which means ‘morsel/ ration/ portion’.

In Irish mythology, the champion’s portion was all about honour amongst warriors. We already know that in ancient Ireland people lived by a defined code of honour and this was certainly true amongst the warrior class.

The curadmir consisted of the choicest cut of meat, usually the thigh, and was awarded to the bravest and most accomplished of a king’s warriors during a feast. It was considered a sign of great honour and privilege.

In fact, so highly regarded was the curadmír, that warriors would fight to the death over it. Not just in stories and myths, either: Althenaeus, a Greek scholar of the late 2nd/ early 3rd century quoted an earlier Greek historian, Posidonius, when he claimed that the Celts gave a hindquarter of pork to their bravest man, which would be settled by single combat to the death.

Diodorus Sicculus, a Greek historian of the 1st century also claimed that the Celts gave joints of meat to their most distinguished warriors.

Yeah, the ancient Greeks had a bit of a fascination with the Celtic peoples, but sadly, they are not reliable. Historians have not been able to identify a people who called themselves Celts, but there is much similarity between their accounts and the people of the Hallstatt and La Tene periods in Central Europe.

And then there are the Irish myths, which seem to confirm this strange custom. Why are you not surprised, huh?

The Tale of Mac da Thó’s Pig, or Scéla Muicce Meicc Da Thó, as it is known in Irish, comes from the Ulster Cycle, and survives in six manuscripts dating between the 12th and 18th centuries, but has been dated linguistically to the 8th century. It tells of a dispute which arose between the men of Connacht, and the men of Ulster.

So, Mac da Thó, King of Leinster, owns a hound named Ailbe which is famed throughout the land for its fierce guarding skills. Queen Medb of Connacht (yes, she of Táin bo Cúailnge fame, who goes to war over possession of a bull) decides she wants this mutt… surprise, surprise. However, her old arch enemy, Conchobar mac Nessa, King of Ulster, also wants to get his hands on Ailbe. I think you can see where this is going, right?

Mac da Thó holds a feast and invites both parties. When they arrive, they are not happy to be seated in the same hall as their enemies. Mac da Thó also owns a mighty pig, which had been fed for seven years by sixty milch cows, and was as wide across as forty oxen. Said beast was now roasting merrily, and the warriors were instantly attracted to it, and began discussing how best to carve it up, and who would get the Caradmír.

As you can imagine, a whole lot of boasting takes place, and many heroic deeds and victories are recounted. Eventually, Cet mac Mágach of the Connacht warriors declares himself the champion, but as he draws his knife to carve the pig, Conall Cernach of the Ulster men leaps to his feet and challenges him, much to the roars of delight from his fellows.

Cet concedes that of the two, Conall is the better warrior, but adds that if his brother,  Anlúan, was there, he would whoop his hide in combat. He says to Conall…

‘It is our misfortune that he [Anlúin] is not in the house.’

‘Oh but he is,’ said Conall, and taking Anlúan’s head from his wallet he threw it at Cet’s breast so that a mouthful of blood spattered over the lips.’

Quoted from Wikipedia

Conall claims the pig’s belly as his curadmír, enough to feed nine men, and after the rest of the meat has been shared out amongs his fellow warriors, only the trotters are left for the Connacht men.

Naturally, a fight breaks out. Mac da Thó unleashes Ailbe to see which side the hound will choose. It fights for the Ulster men, but is beheaded by Fer Loga, a charioteer of Connacht. He mounts Ailbe’s head on top of a spear, and thus the place of her death is known as  Mag nAilbi, or ‘Ailbe’s Plain’ (a real place, the valley plain bordering the River Barrow from County Laois and County Carlow to County Kildare).

If you thought that was weird, wait till you read the next bit! 😛

Clearly fearing the wrath of his King and Queen, Aillil and Medb, for killing the dog, Fer Loga hides in the heather. When King Conchobar rides by in his chariot, Fer Loga leaps up behind him and seizes the King’s head in a mighty grip.

Conchobar promises Fer Loga anything he wants, obviously thinking the man is about to kill him, and this is what Fer Loga demands: that he be taken to Emain Macha, capital of Ulster, where the women of Ulster and their nubile daughters are to sing to him each evening, ‘Fer Loga is my darling.’

Told you, didn’t I? Weird!

The story ends a year later with Fer Loga riding away from Ulster towards Ath Luain with the gift of two of Conchobar’s horses decked in fine golden bridles.

Nora Chadwick believes this tale was created for men, and was designed to be told orally, which is interesting to me personally. What is also interesting is that, even thought this story draws on many of the characters of the Táin bo Cuailnge, it never mentions Cuchulainn, who was said to be Ulster’s greatest hero.

In another story also from the Ulster Cycle, Fled Bricrenn, or the Feast of Bricriu, the allotting of the curadmir also causes much havoc. Bricriu holds a feast for the men of Ulster, and offers the champion’s portion to three of them: Cuchulainn, Conall Cernach, and Lóegaire Búadach. They are obliged then to compete against each other in order to decide who is most worthy.

Many challenges are set, with Cuchulainn emerging as the winner each time, but neither Conall nor Lóegaire accept this. In the end, Cú Roí, a magician from Munster, transforms himself into a giant and challenges each of the three warriors to behead him, on the condition that they then allow him to behead them in return the next night. Only Cúchulainn is brave and honest enough to show up on the second night, so he is deemed as the winner, and judged worthy of the curadmír.

Bricriu was a bit of a troublemaker who appears in several other stories of the Ulster Cycle. In the end, he is trampled to death by the two bulls fighting in the Táin bo Cuailnge. Loughbrickland, a village near Banbridge in County Down, is thought to derive from the Irish Loch Briccrend, meaning ‘Bricriu’s Lake’. He is supposed to have built his home there overlooking the lake, a ring fort named the ‘Watery Fort’.


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6 Founding Principles of Ancient Irish Society

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6 Founding Principles of Ancient Irish Society
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I’ve long felt that our ancient Irish ancestors were far more advanced and civilised than we give them credit for. Not simply because of the amazing engineering which went onto the construction of the stone structures they left behind in the landscape, but through all that I have learned about their beliefs and way of life from reading their stories in the ancient texts. Topped off by the extraordinary Brehon Laws which governed their society.

During my research, I came across the work of Alexei Kondratiev. He was an  author, linguist, and teacher of Celtic languages, folklore and culture in America until his death in 2010. He considered himself to be both a Neo-pagan and a Christian, could speak all six Celtic languages, and several native American languages too. He was a very accomplished scholar and teacher, with qualifications in anthropology, linguistics, Celtic philology, archaeology, and music.

But what drew me to him was a short piece of writing on Celtic values. These struck a chord with me; they explained much that I had wondered about the culture of ancient Ireland.

Alexei claimed that the Celts abided by six core values; honour, loyalty, hospitality, honesty, justice, and courage. These formed the basic principles upon which Celtic society was founded. Although they defined an acceptable set of behaviours, they were not an individual code of conduct but rather a collective one, which applied to the whole community.

  • Honour. This was everything. It wasn’t just a chivalric code to be followed by warriors. In fact, the following five qualities all come back to this one. The Old Irish word for honour is enech, meaning ‘face’. To be an honourable person in one’s community meant ‘saving face’; good things must also be heard about you in your community. The word clú means ‘reputation’ and comes from the Indo-European root ‘to hear’, thus referring to what is being said about you.

A curious practice which demonstrates the importance of honour was called Troscud, which features in the Brehon Law. It involved sitting outside the home of someone who had done you an injustice and fasting from dawn to dusk. During this time, the misdemeanour became common knowledge, and shame was brought upon the wrongdoer if he allowed the injured party to fast while he continued to eat. It usually resulted in the matter being settled privately between the two parties.

The Fianna, Fionn mac Cumhall’s war band had a strict code of honour. This was the motto which they lived by;

Glaine ár gcroí, neart ár ngéag agus beart de réir ár mbriathar “The purity of our hearts, the strength of our limbs and our commitment to our promise”

These are the values Fionn expected all his warriors to live up to;

“If you have a mind to be a good champion, be quiet in a great man’s house; be surly in the narrow pass.

Do not beat your hound without a cause; do not bring a charge against your wife without having knowledge of her guilt; do not hurt a fool in fighting, for he is without his wits.

Do not find fault with high-up persons; do not stand up to take part in a quarrel; have no dealings with a bad man or a foolish man. Let two-thirds of your gentleness be showed to women and to little children that are creeping on the floor, and to men of learning that make the poems, and do not be rough with the common people.

Do not give your reverence to all; do not be ready to have one bed with your companions.

Do not threaten or speak big words, for it is a shameful thing to speak stiffly unless you can carry it out afterwards. Do not forsake your lord so long as you live; do not give up any man that puts himself under your protection for all the treasures of the world.

Do not speak against others to their lord, that is not work for a good man.

Do not be a bearer of lying stories, or a tale-bearer that is always chattering.

Do not be talking too much; do not find fault hastily; however brave you may be, do not raise factions against you.

Do not be going to drinking-houses, or finding fault with old men; do not meddle with low people; this is right conduct I am telling you.

Do not refuse to share your meat; do not have a niggard for your friend; do not force yourself on a great man or give him occasion to speak against you. Hold fast to your arms till the hard fight is well ended.

Do not give up your opportunity, but with that follow after gentleness.”

-from the Tales of Ossian

  • Loyalty. Comes from the Old Irish word tairisiu, which means ‘steadfast’. It refers to always being consistent in one’s relationships with others. In Brehon Law, the term dilis is used to represent loyalty when two things are interdependent, ie one cannot be without the other, thus indicating consistency, permanence, immoveable.

In the Cattle Raid of Cooley, Fergus goes to extreme lengths out of loyalty to Cuchulain. Fergus is Cuchulain’s foster-father, and when Medb sends him out against the young warrior, he begs Cuchulain to yield rather than fight him. Cuchulain agrees on the condition that if they ever meet in battle again, it will be Fergus’s turn to yield.

Of course, they come face to face when Fergus leads Medb’s army into the final battle. Rather than kill his foster-father, Cuchulain reminds him of their agreement, and Fergus duly orders the retreat of Medb’s warriors, risking both defeat and his temperamental Queen’s wrath.

Loyalty appears in other forms in the old stories too, most notably in tragic love stories, when lovers would rather die than be without each other. Some examples would be Graine killing herself after Diarmuid’s death rather than be with Fionn; Baile and Ailin, who both drop down dead in shock when they are told lies about each others deaths, and Deirdre, who, rather than be given to the man who murdered her beloved Naoise, throws herself to her death from a speeding chariot.

  • Hospitality. The Old Irish word for hospitality is oígidecht, derived from oígi, meaning ‘stranger/ newcomer’, ie someone not of one’s home or kin. In ancient times, this was vitally important, as travel was long slow and laborious; there were no maps or hotels, restaurants or toilet facilities like there are now. We laugh at Mrs Doyle in Father Ted, insisting visitors take a cup of tea with her insistent”Go on Go on Go on Go on…”, but hospitality is still as important to the Irish today, if not quite so necessary.

Interestingly, the giving of hospitality was regarded so highly, that to refuse it was seen as very bad form indeed. Many stories highlight this by putting a geis (taboo) on someone, effectively banning him from refusing hospitality. Inevitably, this usually leads to disaster.

When Deirdre eloped with her lover, Naoise, and his two brothers, Conchobar sent Fergus and his son, Fiachu, to track them down. The escapees were duly rounded up and escorted homeward, but along the way Conchobar sent a message ordering Fergus to a feast, knowing he were bound by geis never to refuse hospitality. Fiachu continued alone with the prisoners, but on arrival at the royal castle, they were all killed by the jealous king’s command. In revenge, Fergus burned the castle and fled to Connacht, taking service with Queen Medb against Conchobar and the Ulstermen.

After killing Cullan’s hound, Cuchulain was under a geis never to eat the flesh of a dog. One day, an old woman camping on the roadside offers him refreshment of a meal containing dog meat. The Ulster hero was also under geis never to refuse hospitality, and so was put in a quandary; which geis to break? His decision would inevitably violate one of them. To refuse  hospitality would damage his public reputation, so he chose to break the private taboo, and accepted the dish. This decision was ultimately to lead to his death.

HonestyIndraic in Old Irish means ‘honest/ flawless’, but two other words were also used; cneasta meaning ‘healed/ restored’ and macánta, which means ‘to behave as a child’, ie to be open, friendly and straightforward with others.

Fionn mac Cumhall displays this quality of absolute honesty as a young boy, when he catches the Salmon of Knowledge for his guide and mentor, the Druid Finegas. He could easily have betrayed Finegas’s trust and eaten the salmon himself, but chose not to, even if it meant passing up on the chance to acquire all that knowledge and wisdom.

  • Justice. Coair which comes from Old Celtic ko-uéro, and means ‘in accordance with the truth’. Later,  the word cert (modern ceart), was used, borrowed from the Latin certus, meaning ‘certain/ sure’.

The Brehon Laws defended justice and were based on a system of honour and fines rather than corporal punishment, and governed everything in minute detail from family law, healthcare, commerce, and the practice of medicine to bee-keeping and the protection of trees. They were said to have been implemented by Cormac mac Art, High King of Ireland, who was renowned for his knowledge and wisdom.

At the age of thirty, Cormac set off for Tara, where he came across a woman weeping; her sheep had strayed into the Queen’s garden and cropped her herbs. The King had duly confiscated the poor woman’s flock as compensation and left her destitute. But Cormac said, “More fitting would be one shearing for another,” because both the herbs and the sheep’s fleeces would grow again. The King accepted Cormac’s greater wisdom, and it wasn’t long before Cormac became High King himself, and was much respected for his fair judgement.

  • Courage. The Old Irish word meisnech meant ‘to keep one’s head’ as in to stay cool in a situation and not panic. Sometimes, another word was used, cródacht, which meant bloodthirsty or brave in battle, but not in a crazed, uncontrollable way; it meant being tough enough not to be swayed by pity, a quality which must have been vital to the warrior. The ancient Irish respected life, be it animal, vegetable or human, therefore to destroy a life must have been seen as a difficult if necessary thing to have to do.

The old legends are full of stories of great bravery and courage. You might call him foolhardy rather than brave, but the greatest example of courage has to be when Cuchulain single-handedly takes on the whole of Medb‘s army. At the time, he was only 17. The men of Ulster had been cursed by Macha, who had been forced to run a race against the King’s horses whilst pregnant. She won, but collapsed and gave birth, cursing the Ulstermen with her dying breath, so that they would be rendered incapable of fighting, by labour pains like hers. As Medb advances with her army, Cuchulain manages to hold them off with ambushes and a series of single combats over a period of several months, until the warriors of Ulster are free from their debilitating sickness.

I’d just like to point out here that Macha ran a race whilst heavily pregnant against horses and won; when experiencing the same pains that she felt, the men were unable to move, even to defend their own country. Typical!


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Warrior Women of Ireland

Warrior Women of Ireland www.aliisaacstoryteller.com
Warrior Women of Ireland
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Irish mythology is riddled with powerful women, yet they are quite an enigma. On the one hand, we have feisty Queens like Medb, fearsome Goddesses like the Morrigan, gifted healers like Airmid, female smiths like Brigid, respected Druidesses like Bodhmall,  and knowledgeable lawgivers like  Brigid Brethach. On the other, we have the helpless heroines such as Etain, Deirdre, and Grainne, who seemingly did little but lure men with their beauty into tragedy and catastrophe.

We already know from the Brehon Laws that in ancient Ireland, women enjoyed far greater freedoms than those elsewhere. A woman could enjoy equal status with her husband in marriage; she had the right to divorce him if he did not fulfil his marital obligations, and if so, she was entitled to take with her all her own possessions and half of their joint property, plus a portion for damages. Women were also entitled to enter all the same professions as men.

Which meant that ancient Ireland had its fair share of warrior woman, and some of them were quite kickass, by all accounts!

Now before we go any further, a warning. You know how much I love researching. I can get quite lost in it at times. Even so, when it comes to researching women in Irish mythology, there’s a bit of a black hole. You might assume that society was quite patriarchal, yet we know from texts such as the Brehon Law, and a few others that still survive, such as the Cattle Raid of Cooley, that this is not so. At least, not to the extent you might have thought.

The stories were all written down by Christian monks, and without offending any Christians reading this blog, it’s a fact that they did alter stories, and even earlier written texts, to fit in with their beliefs. The Danann and the Sidhe, for example, were seen as demons and dangerous; and women in the old stories were either ignored, left out completely, or re-written as demure, beautiful, mindless voiceless creatures whose sole aim in life was to marry, have babies, serve the men in her life and God.

So for example, we have few Queens, because powerful women were not tolerated. Key women remain nameless, such as Etain’s mortal mother, who swallowed Etain when in her butterfly incarnation, she fell into her cup of wine. She was known only as ‘the wife of’. This treatment of women in Irish mythology is quite common. And frustrating. Such details were just not seen as important.

And so I have come across references to warrior women, but can’t tell you anything about them, because they were dropped from existence. Often, even really key women, as you will find out, are only mentioned in relation to the male hero of the tale, rather than in her own right. As you will see…

There are two famous bands of warriors in Irish mythology; Fionn mac Cumhall’s Fianna, and the Red Branch Knights of Ulster.

The women of the Fianna were known as banféinní, meaning ‘female warrior-hunter’. It’s not clear whether they had their own battalion, or whether they were ranked alongside their male counterparts, but I suspect it to be the latter.

There are not many women  warriors mentioned by name in the stories of the Fianna. Ailbhe Gruadbrecc is one; her name means Ailbhe (Al-va) ‘of the freckled cheeks’, and she was a daughter of High King Cormac mac Art. It is thought she was a wife, or lover, of Fionn mac Cumall, one of Ireland’s greatest legendary heroes, but died after only a year. One might assume that she died in childbirth, being a young woman, but I suspect that as a warrior, she was more likely to have died either in battle, or on a hunting expedition. It was also said of her that she was ‘the third best woman who ever laid with a man’. Nice way to be remembered! Despite being the High King’s daughter, and married to Fionn, she clearly wasn’t important enough to bother mentioning the manner of her passing. Creadue/ Creidne was the name of a another female warrior in the Fianna about whom I could find out absolutely nothing.

Interestingly, Fionn’s incredible military and hunting success can be attributed to two women. As a child, his care was entrusted to his aunt Bodhmal and another woman named Liath Luachra. They disappeared with him into the forests of the Slieve Bloom mountans to keep him safe from his father’s killers. Bodhmal was his father’s sister, a Druid and warrior. Liath Luachra was a shadowy warrior-woman, skilled in training men for battle and hunting. Her name means ‘the grey one of Luchair’. So here we have a fine example of two high-born women of skill so exceptional, they made their charge into a famous hero, and yet all we know about them is their names.

I have found no reference to women serving in the Red Branch Knights; these were the men of another great Irish legendary hero, Cuchullain. He was a killer and a womaniser. Men wanted to be him (or kill him), and women wanted to be with him. Yet there is almost no other nuance to his personality, save one; he didn’t kill women.

Of course, Cuchullain is most famous for opposing the war efforts of Queen Medb of Connacht. The Cattle Raid of Cooley is one of the most enduring and best loved of Irish mythological stories. I have mentioned Medb loads of times in this blog, so I’m not going to go into any great detail here. Suffice it to say that she went to war over possession of a bull, in order that she could claim her husband, Aillil, did not possess more wealth than her. I guess she had a pretty big ego, that she was prepared to risk so many lives for her pride; either that, or she was made to look like an evil cow (sorry, pardon the pun), an example of what can happen when women get into power.

What I love about her story though, is how earthy it is. It holds nothing back. For example, she had many husbands and lovers, and was said to require 30 men a day to satisfy her sexual appetite, if her lover Fergus wasn’t around. I guess virility was linked with power and strength, even among women. Even her menstrual cycle is mentioned;

“Then her issue of blood came upon Medb and she said: ‘Fergus, cover the retreat of the men of Ireland that I may pass my water’. ‘By my conscience’ said Fergus, ‘It is ill-timed and it is not right to do so’. ‘Yet I cannot but do so’ said Medb, ‘for I shall not live unless I do’… Medb passed her water and it made three great trenches in each of which a household can fit. Hence the place is called Fúal Medba (Medb’s piss). “

Táin Bó Cúailnge from the Book of Leinster

As well as directing the battle, making decisions on military strategy, deals and alliances (which often included the offer of her ‘friendly thighs’), it seems Medb was also involved in the actual fighting, as Cuchullain tells his physician of a spear wound she gave him.

Yet again, we find that this famous hero was trained by a woman. Scathach (Ska-ha) was a female warrior who had a military training academy, Dún Scáith meaning ‘fortress of shadows’ on the Isle of Skye. Doesn’t sound very inviting, does it? And indeed, the only way Cuchullain can enter is by leaping across a deep ravine, thus risking death. He makes it, however, proving himself worthy. Students travelled far and wide to train under her. Cuchullain had many adventures whilst he was there, including becoming the lover of Uathach, Scathach’s daughter after breaking her fingers… don’t ask! When Aoife, Scathach’s sister and rival threatens her, Cuchullain fights Aoife in single combat. When he defeats her, he is so turned on by her battle skills, that he spares her life if she sleeps with him. Subsequently, she becomes pregnant with his son, Connla. Connla’s story is tragic and beautiful, one of my favourite legends, but I’ll not tell it here. It needs its own page.

When Cuchullain completes his training, he returns to Ulster to claim Emer as his bride. He kills her father, and carries her off in triumph, only to be confronted by an army led by another warrior woman, Scenmed, Emer’s sister or aunt, who attempt unsuccessfully to rescue her.

Nessa, Queen of Ulster, was another fiery and scheming warrior woman. She deceived Fergus out of his throne and installed her son Conchobar upon it, whereupon Fergus went to Connacht to join Medb and became her lover. She was originally called Assa meaning ‘gentle’. When her foster-family are ruthlessly murdered, she forms her own band of 27 fianna to track down the killer, and changes her name to Ní-assa, meaning ‘not gentle’. And if that’s not kickass, I don’t know what is.

Muirisc was a lesser known female warrior. She was the daughter of Úgaine Mór, known as Hugony the Great, who was the 66th High King of Ireland, according to the Annals. She had 22 brothers and 2 sisters, and her father, being fair-minded, divided Ireland into 25 portions allotting one to each of his children. This arrangement was said to have lasted 300 years, until the provinces were established by Medb’s father, Eochu Feidlech. Muirisc’s domain extended over Mag Muirisce in Co Mayo, and her Dun lay beneath the slopes of Cruachan Aigli, the Conical Mountain, later to be called Croagh Patrick. She was a sea-captain and a warrior, famed for her bold and daring deeds.

Of course everyone has heard of the Morrigan, the triple aspect female deity said to preside over war-mongery, strife and sovereignty. She was said to have flown over the battle field in the form of a crow, crying harsh encouragement to her men, and striking fear into the hearts of the enemy. I suspect she was pretty nifty with a  weapon, too.

I’d particularly like to mention Macha at this point. Sometimes, she is mentioned as one of the Morrigan sisterhood, sometimes not. She was the wife of Nuada Argetlam, who led the invasion of the Tuatha de Danann against the Fir Bolg to claim Ireland. She participated in both battles, and was finally killed as she defended her fallen husband from the Fomori giant-king, Balor of the Evil Eye. That’s devotion for you.

Finally, I couldn’t draw this post to an end without mentioning Brigid. Brigid was the Goddess of Spring, and is associated with wisdom, excellence, perfection, high intelligence, poetic eloquence, blacksmithing, healing ability, and druidic knowledge. She was particularly well loved for her kindness and gentleness. For me, she is the epitome of mythological womanhood; not only did she embody all the much sought after female attributes, including fertility as the Goddess presiding over Spring, but she could conduct herself with skill and aplomb in the forge. Not only could the girl forge a sword, but she could wield it like a maniac too; her skill in warfare is often overlooked in favour of her more ladylike ones.

So there you have it; equality of the sexes on the battlefields of Irish mythology. Who would have thought it?


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Irish Mythology | Cattle Raids and the Mysterious Giant Bull

Auroch resting in a forest clearing

I am afraid of cows.

This is because I was once chased by a stampeding herd of cows who took an instant dislike to the (very small) dog I was walking at the time, even though she was completely minding her own business. I believe I am only here today due to the astonishingly athletic vault I made at full speed over a gate into the next field, a feat I’ve never since been able to replicate.

Bulls scare me even more. Yet you can’t go far in Ireland without encountering them.

I met these at Grainne’s grave at Shee Beag. They were unnecessarily attentive, in my opinion.

The extremely attentive guardians of Grainne's grave.

I met this one just up the road from my house. You can’t tell from this picture just how big and powerful he is. And terrifying. And yes, that really is just one string of barbed wire separating him from me.

This bull was magnificent! Grey and white, a hulk of muscle and power. Wish I could have got a better picture of him. Made me thing of the Cattle Raid of Cooley.

And this one was witness to my recent visit to St Brigid’s Well at Lisnabantry. I didn’t see him until I was leaving, and had just turned around to pay my final respects. There he was, glaring at me, supremely confident in his might and splendour, with Manannán’s cloak drifting eerily behind him.

White bull, St Brigid's Well, Lisnabantry, Virginia.

Today, cattle are big business in Ireland. As of 2012, there were 139,000 farms in Ireland, 110,000 farming 6.6 million cattle.

In ancient Ireland, although the numbers may have been smaller, cattle were just as important. In pre-Christian days, a person’s wealth was measured not in currency (they had none), or in land, but in the number of cattle one owned. Interestingly, the unit used to measure the value of cattle was known as cumal, the same word used for a female slave.

Cattle raiding was a way of life to the early Irish people. It was seen as sport, an opportunity to show off one’s prowess, acquire wealth, and dominate one’s enemies. A newly appointed King was expected to lead his men in a raid following his inauguration as a celebration.

The Black Pig’s Dyke, so called because in folklore its creation was attributed to the rooting of an enormous black pig, is a huge earthwork stretching between Ulster and Connacht (which passes right through my very own co Cavan). It is thought to have been constructed around 390-370BC in an attempt to counter these increasing waves of cattle raiding.

In Medieval times, the Christian church turned a blind eye to the raids, so long as they received a fair share of the raided cattle.

Cattle tribute was often paid to the High King. According to mythology, when Bres assumed the throne following Nuada of the Tuatha de Denann’s injury, he demanded a very high tribute from them in favour of his Formori heritage. The Denann were famous for their beautiful milk-white cattle, which were greatly coveted by other tribes. However, in order to avoid paying such heavy tribute, the Dagda tricked Bres by driving the herds between the Bealtaine fires so that the smoke stained their coats black.

Brian Boru’s full name, Brian Boruma, actually means ‘Brian of the Cattle Tributes’ because he received such great quantities of cattle in tribute from the lesser kings, thus making him the wealthiest and most powerful man in the land.

The river Goddess, Boann,  from whom the River Boyne is named, is associated with a white cow called Bó Bhán. Boann was the daughter of  Delbáeth of the Tuatha de Denann. One day, she went against her husband’s will (for shame!) to the source of the Boyne which was known as the Well of Segais (Connla’s Well) where the enchanted Hazels of Knowledge grew. In outrage at her audacity, the water rose up and spilled out of the well in a torrent, carrying her out to sea where she drowned. It is thought that she connects the Way of the White Cow (the Milky Way) to Newgrange (Brú na Boinne).

Another famous cow in mythology was Glas Gaibhnenn, the magical ‘Grey Cow of the Smith’. She was said to have belonged to Goibniu, the master Smith of the Tuatha de Denann. It was said of her that she had milk for all, and that all you had to do was place a vessel beneath her, and she milked herself into it.

In ancient Ireland, women were just as likely to own cattle as men. A fine example of this is recounted in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, a story of Irish mythology more famously known as ‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’.

Queen Medb and her husband, Ailill, were discussing which of them was the wealthier. They compared all their fine possessions, slaves, livestock, and found that they were quite equal except in one regard; Ailill owned the magnificent milk-white bull, Finnbhennach, which means ‘white-horned’.

Medb was somewhat peeved by this, so she approached Dáire mac Fiachna of Ulster for the loan of his brown bull,  Donn Cuailnge. Although he agreed, Medb’s men boasted how they would have taken the bull by force, and furious, he reneged on the deal.

As a consequence, the determined Medb assembled her armies and marched against Fiachna. Eventually, after a long drawn out military campaign, she succeeded in capturing the bull, but when she brought him home, he and Finnbhennach took immediate exception to each other.

The two mighty creatures clashed in a battle which raged up and down the land. Ailill’s white bull was killed, and Donn Cuailnge returned to Ulster, where he died of his wounds and exhaustion.

There is also an interesting story about the origins of these two bulls. According to mythology, two pig-herders belonging to Bodb Dearg (son of the Dagda, and High King of the Denann after they were forced to retreat into their hollow hills) got into an argument, which quickly turned to blows.

As descendants of the magical folk, they were able to fight their battle in many animal forms,  as each sought to press their advantage over the other. Finally, they unwisely took the shape of two worms (do worms fight each other? Who knew! Perhaps the translation should have been ‘snakes’, although there were none in Ireland), which were promptly eaten up by two grazing cows.

Thus, Finnbhennach was born into Ailill’s cattle herd, and Donn Cuaillnge born into Fiachna’s herd, and the hatred which had arisen in their previous incarnation continued into the next.

I wonder what was so special about these bulls. All we know, is that they were huge and mighty, and worth going to battle over. There must have been many other bulls in the land, so why were these particular ones so highly prized that Medb and Ailill would risk so many lives over them?

I have a theory. (Yes, of course I do!)

Perhaps these bulls weren’t bulls at all, but aurochs.

The auroch is an extinct ancient ancestor of today’s cow, which roamed across Europe, Asia and Africa. It is not thought to have been native to Ireland; no bones have been found, but lack of evidence proves only that they have not yet been discovered.

Last year, the remains of an auroch were unearthed at the Ness of Brodgar complex on the Scottish island of Orkney. If it managed to reach this remote location, I see no reason why it couldn’t have found its way to Ireland, either through the machinations of man, or under its own steam.

During Neolithic times, the auroch was hunted for its meat, hide and horns, and there is evidence to suggest that this was also when attempts at domestication first began.

Caesar in his De Bello Gallico claimed that aurochs were swift and fast, and very aggressive… no doubt he managed to capture a few and send them back home for the battle games in the arena.

It was one of the largest herbivores in Europe, the bulls standing on average, up to 180 cm (71 in) tall at the shoulders. The horns could reach 80 cm (31 in) in length and and 20 cm (7.9 in) in diameter. These great cattle were longer, thinner and more athletic than the creatures we know today, with longer legs. The males were dark brown, or black in colour with a distinctive lighter ‘eel-stripe’ running down their spines, and lighter muzzles, whereas the females were a softer, chestnut brown.

Bos_primigenius_Vig_uroksen (1)
This large specimen dates from 7500 BC and is on display at The National Museum of Denmark. The circles indicate where the animal was wounded by arrows. Image licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

We know all this, because they continued to survive in small numbers into the early modern era; the last one, a female, was said to have died in 1627 in the Jaktorów Forest, Poland, from natural causes.

Sadly, it is thought that unrestricted hunting, the development of farming in their natural habitiat, and diseases transmitted by domestic cattle, all contributed to their extinction. However, many characteristics of the auroch live on in certain breeds of modern cattle, and there are breeding programmes in place with the aim of reintroducing them into the wild.

Where Do You Go To See The Book of Kells?

Image from Boyne Valley Tours. I know it looks flat, but it's actually a big hill!
Image from Boyne Valley Tours. I know it looks flat, but it’s actually a big hill!

Answer: Not Kells!

Sadly, you have to go all the way to Dublin to see this famous manuscript, which now resides in the library at Trinity College. The famous Book Of Kells is an illuminated manuscript of the four gospels of the New Testament written in Latin and highly decorated, it really is a work of art. It is believed to have been written around 800BC by Columban monks from Iona, and is named after the town of Kells because it was kept at the abbey there for many centuries.

Despair not, my friends, because you don’t have to go all the way to Dublin to view this masterpiece, oh no! For through the wonders of modern technology you can view it in its entirety right here on aliisaacstoryteller… I give you… The Book of Kells!  Continue reading

Imbas Forosnai | Poetic Inspiration of the Irish Filidh

Atlantic Salmon HeadSomething which intrigued me during my research for my latest book, Conor Kelly and The Fenian King, was Fionn mac Cumhall’s ability to call forth his magical powers and divine the future by sucking or biting on his thumb.

The story goes that, as a boy, whilst serving an apprenticeship with the Druid Finegas, he catches the Salmon of Knowledge and cooks it for his master. As he turns the fish in the pan, he scalds his thumb. Instinctively, he places his thumb in his mouth to cool the burn, thus ingesting the tiny scrap of fish skin stuck there, and acquiring the salmon’s knowledge. Afterwards, he has only to touch his thumb to his mouth to foretell the future, and seek the answers to his questions.  Continue reading

Geis | The Curse in Irish Mythology

The geis (pronounced gesh or gaysh) is Irish for ‘curse’, or ‘taboo’, yet in some circumstances, they might also be seen in a positive light, as a ‘gift’. Irish mythology is awash with geisa, almost every hero being afflicted by at least oneif not more. At first glance, they seem little more than a sprinkling of magical spice to add a little extra drama to a story; if the hero violates his geis, he suffers dishonour and maybe even death.

However, a closer look yields a slightly different concept behind the use of the geis in Irish myth and legend.  Continue reading